The glorious bounty of food that surrounds us this time of year makes the season a celebration. From cheese plates, party dips and turkey dinners to chocolates, cakes and cookies, it is a time when pleasure and indulgence rule. Many embrace the bacchanalia wholeheartedly and banish thoughts about health until Jan. 1, while others struggle to forgo the deliciousness to stay on the right track. But the idea that you have to choose between pleasure and wellness is untrue. There is a wealth of evidence that focusing on food’s sensual pleasure can help you find a healthful balance.
It turns out that simply imagining the pleasure of those butter cookies before reaching for them could help prevent you from gobbling too many. In a 2014 study done at INSEAD, a business school founded in France, researchers found that people who were asked to vividly imagine the taste, smell and texture of an indulgent food, such as chocolate cake, before being offered some, ultimately chose smaller portions of that food and enjoyed it as least as much as those who didn’t think about the food before eating it.
Another study, this one from Brigham Young University, concluded that thinking about a food — in this case by looking at pictures of it and evaluating it — activates sensory memories of the eating experience that provide a measure of satisfaction; the subjects didn’t need to consume as much to feel content.
So before you get to a holiday party, try imagining the goodies you expect to find there. Conjure the aroma, texture and how they will look and taste. Think about their preparation and how they’ll be served. You could pore through photos from cookbooks or previous parties to help make your image more complete. You might find satisfaction without stuffing yourself.
To get the most pleasure from food, slow down instead of shoveling it in mindlessly. Employ all of your senses to fully experience it and how it makes you feel. Before you eat, take in the food with your eyes, appreciating its colors, textures and presentation, and inhale and enjoy its appealing aroma. When you take a bite, chew well, allowing all the flavors to unfold.
Approaching food in this way not only produces more pleasure as you eat, it helps temper your pace and allows you to consume less overall. Studies show that when people eat more slowly, they tend to take in fewer calories and feel just as satisfied. According to a study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, this may be, at least in part, because slower eating produces more gut hormones associated with feelings of fullness.
Slowing down not only boosts the pleasure of food, it helps you to continue to feel good afterward because you are less likely to overeat and be uncomfortable. And besides, chewing well makes the whole digestive process run more smoothly.
A key thing for food lovers to remember is that the hedonistic pleasure we get from a particular food doesn’t increase with bigger portions. Rather, we experience something scientists call “sensory-specific satiety” where after eating something for a while our enjoyment of it diminishes. To get the maximum pleasure per bite, it’s best to go for a small portion and pause for a few minutes after eating to let it register completely that the craving has been quenched.
So to reap the most joy from holiday food without going overboard, take a moment to anticipate and imagine eating your favorite treat, serve yourself a small portion of it and savor every bite. Then sit back, relax and let all that pleasure sink in.
Krieger is a registered dietitian, nutritionist and author. She blogs and offers a biweekly newsletter at www.elliekrieger.com. She also writes weekly Nourish recipes in The Washington Post’s Food section.
^ Chat Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. Join Krieger for a live Q&A about healthful eating.
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